Enormous tasks ahead for China

On Tuesday Chinese Premier Li Keqiang kicked off the nine-day 2014 session of the National People’s Congress by stressing the importance of achieving both economic growth and structural reform.

Symbolically he mentioned “reform” 77 times in his nearly two-hour long speech before the NPC meeting, the first under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. But the task the Chinese leadership must tackle is enormous.

To name a few, the problems it must solve include a balance between economic growth and the quality of life, excess in production capacities, bursting of housing bubbles, swelling of local debts, corruption, air pollution and minority issues.

The Chinese leadership needs to implement concrete measures to achieve economic efficiency and improve the quality of economic growth. Resistance to reform from vested interests will be great. Without overcoming of the resistance, it will be difficult for China to “deepen reforms on all fronts.”

Li said that China is targeting growth of about 7.5 percent in 2014, the same as the 2013 growth goal. Although China achieved 7.7 percent growth in 2013, a slowdown of China’s economic growth is clear compared with the rapid growth of the past.

To improve the quality of economic growth, increasing domestic demand, fighting environmental disruption — as symbolized by PM2.5 air pollution — and developing agricultural villages will be important factors, as Li pointed out.

Ominous social signs seem to be coming to the fore in China, including terrorist attacks before important meetings. On Oct. 28 there was a fiery crash of a sports utility vehicle in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing the three occupants of the vehicle and two bystanders, and injuring 40 others. The crash was attributed to Uighur activists.

On Nov. 6, a series of explosions occurred in front of the Chinese Communist Party’s Shanxi Provincial Committee building in Taiyuan, killing one person and injuring eight others. These incidents preceded a meeting of the party’s 200-member Central Committee on Nov. 9-12.

On March 1, just before the current NPC session, a mass stabbing attack occurred at a railway station in Kunming, Yunnan Province, killing 29 people and injuring more than 140 others. Behind these attacks is people’s dissatisfaction over the government’s political regimentation — including that of ethnic minorities — corruption and economic gaps.

In his speech, Li condemned the Kunming attack and expressed the government’s resolve to crack down on terrorist crimes. In fact, China increased the central government’s fiscal 2014 budget for maintenance of internal security by 6.1 percent to 205 billion yuan (about ¥3.4 trillion).

But the Chinese leadership should examine whether its policy toward ethnic minorities is correct and make serious efforts to accomplish reconciliation with them.

As this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democratization movement (1989), political regimentation is likely to continue. It will be incumbent on Chinese leaders to push political reform and economic reform simultaneously. As part of political reform, ensuring an independent judiciary will be key.

China’s defense budget for fiscal 2014 will grow to 808.23 billion yuan (about ¥13.44 trillion), an increase of 12.2 percent from actual defense spending for fiscal 2013.

China will make no concessions in territorial disputes in the South and East China seas. Apparently aiming at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish policy line, Li said, “We will safeguard the victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.”

Japan needs to develop a coolheaded strategy toward China. It will be unwise to answer provocation with provocation. If Chinese and Japanese leaders continue to accuse each other and take actions that ratchet up tension, bilateral relations will continue to deteriorate.

Both countries must make concrete efforts to improve bilateral relations, including holding a summit between Abe and Xi.